Biden remains divided between resistance and acceptance in private despite calls to step aside

WASHINGTON — In recent conversations with aides, family members and allies outside the White House, President Joe Biden has vacillated between acceptance and resistance in the face of a massive shift in his policy stance within his own party, according to four people familiar with the matter.

In some discussions, Biden has acknowledged that the fallout from his performance in last week’s debate could be too great to overcome, while in other discussions he has completely rejected suggestions that he might abandon his re-election campaign, these people said.

Some of the president’s family members, notably first lady Jill Biden and their son Hunter Biden, have been pushing him to make changes to his staff and are increasingly weighing in on his campaign strategy in an effort to revive his floundering campaign, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Biden’s sister, Valerie Owens, is traveling to Washington on Thursday to join other family members at the White House for the Fourth of July holiday, but she will also have private conversations about her brother’s campaign, a source said.

Biden’s family members have privately pointed fingers at some of his closest aides over his disastrous debate performance, discussing whether he should fire senior White House adviser Anita Dunn, for example, and possibly even her husband, Bob Bauer, who is Biden’s personal attorney, two people familiar with the matter said.

Dunn and Bauer were early supporters of Biden’s 2020 campaign after throwing their support behind his candidacy in 2016, which he ultimately reneged on. They were among more than a dozen Biden aides who spent days preparing him for last week’s debate, with Dunn playing moderator and Bauer impersonating former President Donald Trump in mock debate sessions. For more than a year, they have both drawn the ire of members of the Biden family for their stance that Hunter Biden should keep a lower profile in handling his legal troubles.

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients denied there were any discussions about removing Dunn or Bauer.

“The President and First Lady have complete confidence in their team, including Anita and Bob,” Zients said in a statement. “There is absolutely no truth to these baseless and insulting rumors.”

A senior Democrat said: “The family is scared. These advisers are incredibly loyal and are doing their jobs. This is unwarranted.”

According to one adviser, Biden has told his advisors that he does not fault the team that prepared him for the debate for his performance.

Members of Biden’s family have been the loudest voices rejecting any suggestion that he might withdraw from the race, according to people familiar with the private conversations. Biden, too, is not inclined to withdraw, as he has emphasized in public appearances. But he is weighing his own instincts to stay and fight — and the reinforcement of those instincts by his family — against the growing calls to step aside and data showing the damage his debate performance has done to his reelection chances.

“He sees that there is potentially no real path,” said one of these people. “But he is being pushed.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement: “President Biden has been consistent: He remains in the race.”

Biden has been in talks with Democratic Party leaders in recent days as calls for his resignation grow and fears mount among Biden’s allies.

Biden, however, was not happy with advice that former President Barack Obama gave him during a phone call this week. He still harbors resentment toward his former boss for advising him not to run for the White House in 2016.

Obama has privately expressed doubts about his ability to influence Biden on such a personal decision if party leaders determined that Biden needed to be persuaded to withdraw from the race, according to two people familiar with his comments.

“President Biden values ​​President Obama’s advice and support for his leadership,” Bates, the White House spokesman, said in a statement.

When asked for comment, an Obama spokesman pointed to his recent public statements endorsing Biden and noting that he himself had a bad debate when he was running for re-election in 2012.

Biden initially felt energized to continue his campaign the day after the debate, buoyed by a rally Friday afternoon in North Carolina where he received a hearty reception from the crowd, according to two people familiar with the matter. But as the weekend wore on, the gravity of what was happening on the debate stage in front of the nation began to sink in, the person said.

His mood changed. He was deeply hurt and embarrassed by a disastrous debate performance that was seen by the world, NBC News reported.

The question he faced went beyond whether he could survive the political pressure to step aside. He also wondered whether he would be able to overcome the humiliation of the debate and have the confidence to step back into the ring and fight hard and without gloves.

“Joe Biden always gets back up when he is knocked down,” White House spokesman Bates said in a statement.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Virginia), who hosted Biden at a fundraising event on Tuesday, said he did not come across as a daunted candidate.

“He seemed strong. He didn’t seem tame or intimidated. He didn’t seem like a broken man. He didn’t seem like someone in crisis,” Beyer said. “He just seemed very confident and very much saying, ‘I’m going to win this thing.'”

NBC News reported that Hunter Biden is desperate for his father to stay in the race. And Jill Biden is adamant that he won’t give up.

She gathered with Biden family members at Camp David, Maryland, over the weekend and pointed to everything they’ve endured since Biden decided to run for the White House — including attacks on Hunter Biden and criminal investigations into their son that have made public some of the family’s darkest and most painful moments — to make clear that now is the time to fight, two people familiar with the conversations said. “Our son could go to prison for this,” she said, referring to Hunter Biden’s recent aggravated weapons conviction.

As Jill Biden campaigned for her husband in Pennsylvania on Tuesday with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., said Biden’s debate performance was not discussed. Barragan told NBC News that Jill Biden was “cheerful, always smiling and engaging with us.”

“I couldn’t see anything that told me that something was happening or that something else was going on,” she said.

Immediately after the debate, Biden’s family members tried to piece together what had happened during his debate preparations with senior staffers at Camp David, people familiar with the discussions said. They wanted to know who was responsible for apparently pumping Biden full of numbers and statistics instead of coaching him to speak from his heart, the people said.

They specifically questioned the decision to have Bauer play Trump in mock debate sessions when there were outside suggestions for someone else to play the role, which Biden’s top advisers rejected. A person close to Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff who led his debate preparations, said Klain asked Bauer to play Trump as he had in mock debate sessions in 2020.

Now, family discussions are focused on how to restore Biden’s standing and continue his campaign, while his closest aides are engaged in a massive campaign to prevent key Democrats from breaking with him.

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